In a few days, we will be celebrating a day that is dear to those who cherish our great continent. Well, for us in Mzansi, ‘celebrate’ is not quite the word: we the wafanyakazi will be at the office or on the factory floor, and the day will pass by sans the fanfare associated with May 25 in countries where it is a public holiday.
Of course, I do not expect many readers of this column to know what wafanyakazi means. The situation may be a bit different in a few years, if Angie Motshekga’s pet project to introduce Swahili, East Africa’s lingua franca, in South African high schools comes to fruition. Wafanyakazi is the working class, what our communist friends refer to as the proletariat.
But I digress; the focus this week is on one of the personalities who did their utmost to advance the aims and objectives of the entity whose founding – back in 1963 – Africa Day marks. That entity is the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor to the African Union, and the personality in question is Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s President from 1964 to 1991.
In a piece published by the BBC last week, Sierra Leonean-Gambian journalist Ade Daramy wrote about how shocked he had been to discover that many in his circle – especially those under the age of 30 – didn’t have a clue who Kaunda was, while most of those who did were astonished that he was still alive. That was on Kaunda’s ninety-seventh birthday – April 28. I bet Daramy could have been talking about many South Africans.
Born to immigrant parents from Malawi, Kaunda became his country’s first post- independence President in 1964, aged 40. As the older folk would tell you, during Zambia’s struggle for independence, he used to say his wish was for all citizens to be able to have an egg and a pint of milk for breakfast every morning and for everyone to have a pair of shoes.
Popularly known as KK, he was one of the early postcolonial leaders who believed the independence of their own countries was meaningless as long as some countries on the continent remained under colonial rule. This stance did not find expression in rhetoric only. Besides taking up the cudgels for liberation movements from the region at international forums, KK invited some of them – including South Africa’s African National Congress, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union and Namibia’s South West Africa People’s Organisation – to establish their head offices in Zambia and to use that country as a rear base.
This was a risky move, given the military might of the regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and of the apartheid regime, which presided over South Africa before 1994 and was a colonial power of sorts in Namibia until 1990. I recall news reports in the late 1980s – it must have been in 1987 – of a predawn strike by South African commandos on the border town of Livingstone. Five Zambian civilians were killed in that raid.
But KK was a fallible human as well. While he did his utmost to improve the lot of the Zambian people, he betrayed the promise of democracy by declaring Zambia a one-party State in 1973. In subsequent elections – in 1978, 1983 and 1987 – he ran as the sole Presidential candidate, winning by upwards of 80% of the vote each time.
When he was forced to reintroduce multiparty elections in 1991, he was trounced by an upstart from the trade union movement. To his credit, he conceded defeat and has largely been out of the limelight ever since. The only time we get to hear about him is in connection with his charitable organisations, including one focused on HIV/Aids, a disease that claimed one of his children.